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Master Naturalists: Protecting colonial waterbird nesting places

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
April 3, 2014 at midnight
Updated April 2, 2014 at 11:03 p.m.

Brent Ortego, wildlife diversity biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, posts a sign across the channel from a colonial waterbird rookery in Seadrift to protect nesting birds.

Spring is here; coastal bay and estuary temperatures are above 60 degrees.

Recreational boaters with families and sometimes a dog, will be launching and enjoying waters, beaches and barrier islands.

Another group will also be heading for their favored coastal bend locations - but to set up rookeries, find territories, breed, lay and incubate eggs and feed hatchlings until fledged.

Then, the juveniles will learn to fly and hunt for themselves.

Breeding season for colonial-nesting waterbirds is about to begin.

What is a colonial-nesting waterbird?

Bird biologists will tell you they're a large group of species with two common characteristics. They tend to gather in large assemblages, called colonies, during the nesting season, and they obtain all or most of their food - fish and aquatic invertebrates - from the water.

Seabirds, of course, feed primarily in saltwater; some are coastal, living and feeding near-shore or on-shore. Others are pelagic, nesting on shore but living and feeding in open oceans and returning to land only to nest. Examples are albatrosses, shearwaters, storm-petrels, tropicbirds, boobies, auks and penguins.

Coastals include gulls, terns and cormorants (some of which live in fresh waters), diving birds such as pelicans, as well as wading birds, herons, night herons, bitterns, egrets, stilts, ibises, willets, spoonbills and storks.

Finally, there are the shore birds, rails, killdeer, plovers and oystercatchers.

Colonial-nesting preferences

Each colonial species has very distinct nesting preferences. Some preferences may seem odd to humans.

Different species may prefer dense vegetation, sparse vegetation, low brush, shrubs and mangroves and the ground - in the open on low-lying beaches, spoil islands or even bare gravel (like a gravel or oyster shell parking lot near a beach or next to a chemical plant.)

Population threats increasing for some species

Rookeries on isolated islands are preferred. Why? As protection from natural and introduced mammal predators - coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, feral dogs, cats and, of course, feral hogs. Other threats to nesters are storms, which inundate beaches, loss of habitat to rising ocean levels that submerge low islands and coastal development and industrialization. And don't forget abandoned fishing line, lures and hooks - they're killers.

What do responsiblerecreational boaters need to do?

Boaters should watch their behavior during this year's nesting period. Rookeries are abandoned if they are disturbed during egg incubation, and parents may abandon hatchlings if they are threatened.

Boaters can be assured they don't cause this by following simple rules established by conservation organizations like Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, Audubon Texas, American Bird Conservancy and the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. They, with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ask boaters to "Fish, swim and play from 50 yards away."

Take action

Nesting areas are posted. Obey the signs onshore or in the water. Don't trespass; it's against the law.

Anchoring to fish or swim? Stay 50 yards from the shore.

No kids or pets on nesting islands - never, ever, even for just a few minutes. Dogs terrify nesters.

If you are near nesters and they get agitated- make lots of noise, fly off nests or move away- then you are a threat and should move immediately.

Take broken, fouled or abandoned tackle onshore and recycle it in containers provided at most docks.

See people breaking these rules? Call Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at 1-800-792-4263 and report what you saw.

Last November's meetings on colonial waterbird populations, which we attended, showed dramatic, ongoing declines in many species' numbers.

Sources: "Colonial-Nesting Waterbirds: A Glorious and Gregarious Group," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; "Breeding Birds Texas Coast: A Fisherman's and Boater's Bird Guide," February-August; A History of Conserving Colonial Waterbirds in the United States, James A Kushlan, The Waterbird Society; dx.doi.org/10.1675/063.035.0410; Reducing Human Disturbance to Waterbird Communities Near Corps of Engineers Projects, Jonathon J . Valente and Richard A. Fischer; el.erdc.usace.army.mil/elpubs/pdf/doere29.pdf; Personal Notes, Colonial Waterbird Conference, UHV, November 2013.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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